Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

STEMM Faces Generational Gender Gap

By Guy Nolch

A meta-analysis of academic authorship has concluded that gender equity in science remains decades away.

For all the efforts being made to promote opportunities for women in science, parity between the genders remains decades away in some scientific disciplines, according to a meta-research article published in PLoS Biology ( “Although women are increasingly studying Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM) subjects at university, women comprise a minority of senior staff, are less often trained in elite research groups, are promoted more slowly, and are more likely to leave STEMM careers,” the paper ominously began.

The University of Melbourne researchers used the online database to identify the gender of more than 36 million authors of more than 10 million research papers published in more than 6000 journals over the past 15 years. Their pessimistic conclusion was that “the gender gap appears likely to persist for generations”.

The study found that “87 of the 115 disciplines examined have significantly fewer than 45% women authors... Of the gender-biased disciplines, almost all are moving towards parity, though some are predicted to take decades or even centuries to reach it.” For instance: “Physics presently has around 13% women in the last author position, but this figure is only rising by c. 0.1% per year”. On this basis the authors speculate that “it will be 258 years ... before the gender ratio of senior physicists comes within 5% of parity”.

In general, the last person named in a research paper’s list of co-authors is the most senior researcher – a supervisor of more junior researchers who actually conducted the research being published. The Melbourne study found that “women were substantially under­represented as the last-named author in the author list and as single authors, and overrepresented as first authors... relative to the overall author gender ratio”.

The analysis revealed that more prestigious journals (identified by impact factor rankings) were “negatively correlated with the proportion of women authors”. Furthermore, “men are roughly 1.7–2.1 times more likely than women to be invited to submit papers,” which the authors contend is “consistent with gender bias by journal editors”.

Among the reasons listed for “the dearth of senior women in STEMM” was that “women progress to research leadership roles more slowly than men” and “are more likely than men to leave STEMM careers before progressing to senior positions”.

Female seniority was also assessed in a PLoS One study of 202 scientific societies, which found that women filled just one-third of board positions and one-quarter of executive leadership positions ( “The promising find was that diversity begets diversity, with societies with more female leaders attracting and retaining more female members,” said first author Dr Dominique Potvin of the University of the Sunshine Coast.

Likewise the Melbourne researchers took the optimistic view that the high number of female first authors was a sign that more women are getting a foothold in a STEMM career. The challenge, then, is to maintain the momentum through to senior ranks.

Potvin suggests that the culture of a scientific society strongly influences gender balance, which will most likely be achieved “by bringing women to the forefront as elected leaders of their fields”.

On a different front, the Melbourne study suggests that academic publishing itself requires reform. After all, if double-blind trials are the gold standard required of research papers, shouldn’t this also be the standard required of journal editing and peer review?

Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.